Portrait of Thoreau Henry David Thoreau

“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”



(Conscientious individuals are summoned to war courageously against injustice.)

All text except quotations is copyright 2001 by David Lahti, and represents his views alone.
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Summary and Reflection

Tidbits of Significance

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Summary and Reflection

Shall we render to Caesar the things that are God's? Here is a valiant essay in defense of the principle that no human law has rightful power over the individual conscience. In the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which noted the same thing of peoples, Thoreau here asserts the right of an individual to dissolve the ties that bind one to the State, when that State commands him to violate a higher law. Are we born to be forced? Thus Thoreau appeals to natural law as did Jefferson, at least in the sense that there seems to be a law written on our hearts which trumps the law of any group of people, however influential it is and regardless of any majority which supports it.


Thoreau, ever the practical, hardheaded American, does not seek the answer to the question of whence such a mysterious conscience might have come, or how it gains its justification or binding force. Rather, he moves straight to application, which in his case concerns the existence of slavery. Slavery is an abomination according to his recognition of a higher law; yet the law of the land permits it. How is he to respond? Dissociation! Individual rebellion! One's mere vote is a drop in a pond, barely making a ripple against the will of the majority. One's action, on the other hand, can be a log jam or beaver dam, altering the flow of the body of water as a whole, however large it might be. "Civil Disobedience" is an enthusiastic, apparently spontaneous outpouring of a furious pen, to the end of individual action on behalf of principle.


Democratic government is an expedient. We know no fairer way to govern a nation, so we suffer with it. Were there a system whereby only the best people would rule-- an aristocracy in the literal Greek sense of a "rule of the most good", we could demand its use. But no such system exists. The definition of "most good" itself, as well as the identities of people who fit the bill, will always be debatable; those who force their own opinions of these matters on others are tyrants. We must therefore submit all matters to the rule of the majority, which is a body by no means likely to stumble onto truth or justice simply because it consists of lots of people. So, given the fact that government is at best something we are settling for, we must recognize that we may not be able to stand for many of its edicts. Its whims might range so far afield that we might actually be legally bound to commit crimes against an order of things that we trust and serve, but that the majority does not even recognize. In that case, Thoreau calls upon us to stand firm and withstand the blows of the majority, to apply what force we may against the unjust system. From a standpoint of principle, this is the right thing to do, Thoreau says. From the standpoint of pragmatics, people tend to be impressed and swayed by such displays of determination and courage, and so through individual action a minority may eventually influence the majority to change for the better.


The exciting but also very dangerous thing about all of this is that it is a program that can be adopted by anybody, irrespective of their beliefs. Just because Thoreau's argument was against slavery does not mean that any use of civil disobedience will necessarily be on behalf of such a lofty ideal as the inalienable right of liberty to all men. In fact, in reading this essay, I find several things about Thoreau's conscience that tend to clash with mine. Each of us could mount a defense of beliefs that contradict each other. So our conscientious actions, lumped together, may not change society for the better. Using our present political situation as an example, I know those who would be honestly inspired by this essay to act on behalf of the abolition of private gun ownership, for the sake of a peaceful society; and I know others equally honest who would be inspired by it to act on behalf of the right to bear arms, for the sake of liberty and, in turn, a peaceful society. I know those whose civil disobedience, were they courageous enough, would be to refuse support to a State that pays for abortions; and I know others whose courage would spur them to boycott a State that refused women the right to have them. Whether one of the sides is right and the other wrong in each case is not the point here. The very fact that the virtues of courage and determination can be applied for two opposing ends, means that we cannot be very confident in civil disobedience by itself as an agent of social reform. Civil disobedience will benefit society only if it is used in service to what does in fact benefit society. This may seem like a truism, but the point is that not all honestly and strongly held views are equally valid. Merely rebelling will not make a wrong view right, and if a view is wrong then actions on its behalf certainly will not better society.  In light of all this, if I were to say one thing in criticism of this essay (which is one of the very dearest to my heart) it would be this: Thoreau's central message is simply to fight for the dictates of your conscience; I would suggest that an even higher priority should be to unceasingly endeavor to make sure that your conscience is right, and to find out what that means.  But all the while, yes, fight for the dictates of your conscience!


In balance, Thoreau's major point here is not a social one, but an individual one. The main reason we are to be strong in conscience is for the sake of our own peace of mind, integrity, and identity. We are born, we have the duty to do something with our lives, and we die. Whether the world is consistent with our view of goodness or justice is of much less importance; and besides, it is a matter over which we have little if any control. Whether we save the world, our nation, or even our family with our courage and integrity is not the main issue. The important thing is that we live well. Standing up for one’s beliefs is a major ingredient in a good life. Staunchly individualistic, I admit this is. It is Thoreau, after all! But can we argue with him?


 Top of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"



Tidbits of Significance


"That government is best which governs not at all."


"Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient."


"The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it."


"The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way."


"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."


"Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?-- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation *with* a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice."


"...they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God."

-on one type (of three) of citizen, who serves the State with his head only, and makes no moral distinctions.


"I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also."


"There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man."


"Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men."


"O for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!"


"How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement for men to settle here? The American has dwindled into an Odd Fellow,-- one who may be known by the development of his organ of gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on coming into the world, is to see that the Almshouses are in good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb, to collect a fund for the support of the widows and orphans that may be; who, in short, ventures to live only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company, which has promised to bury him decently."


"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support."


"The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it."


"Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine."


"If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth,-- certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."


"I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong."


"...any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already."


"...it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever."


"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."


"A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."


"Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now."


"Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the 'means' are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor."


"As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog."

-on those who imprisoned him for tax evasion.


"Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I."


"I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions…"


"…I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject".


"…I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases."


"They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency."

-on those whose minds are occupied mostly with politics and whose thoughts never go "behind government".


"The lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency."


"They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head."


"We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire."


"For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation?"


"There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."


 Top of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"



Detail from French's "Slavery in South Carolina and the Ex-Slaves" , depicts slaveholders releasing a slave to freedom. Read this when...

…you are disillusioned with the government, or the fact that you must submit to laws that you believe are wrong; or, you wish for encouragement that one person's conscience might make a difference.


Top of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"



If you like this, you'd also like...

(for the socially conscientious:)

-Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

-Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851)

-Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)

-George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)


(for the student of the American 19th century thinkers)

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (1841)

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855-1892)

-Bronson Alcott, Tablets (1868)


 Top of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"



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 Top of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"